The Sweeper consortium was invited to hold the first live demonstration of its new sweet pepper harvesting robot at the De Tuindershoek greenhouse horticulture firm in IJsselmuiden. The so-called ‘Sweeper robot’ is the world’s first harvesting robot for sweet peppers to be demonstrated in a commercial greenhouse. An audience of over 40 interested parties watched the harvesting robot pick its first commercially-grown sweet peppers.
The Sweeper robot was designed to harvest sweet peppers in a cultivation system based on single plant stalks in a row, a crop without clusters and in little foliage near the fruits.
In earlier test set-ups in a commercial greenhouse with a V-type double-row cultivation system the harvesting robot achieved a harvesting percentage of 62%. Based on these test results, the Sweeper consortium expects to be able to bring the commercial sweet pepper harvesting robot to the market in about four or five years.
Further research required
Until then, further research will be needed to enable the robots to work faster and achieve a higher success percentage. Additionally, commercially viable cultivation systems must be developed that are more suitable to the robotic harvesting of crops. The test and research results are not only suitable for the automatic harvesting of sweet peppers; the data can also be used to robotise the harvesting of other crops.
International research partnership
Sweeper is a partnership between Wageningen University & Research (WUR), sweet pepper farm De Tuindershoek BV, the Umea University in Sweden, the Ben-Gurion University in Israel, the Research Station for Vegetable Cultivation and Bogaerts Greenhouse Logistics in Belgium. The study receives financial support from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme and is also funded by the Dutch Horticulture and Propagation Materials Top Sector.
Successor of CROPS
The Sweeper robot is the successor of CROPS (Clever Robots for Crops), an EU project launched by WUR, in which WUR and the other participants developed a robot that can make a distinction between a sweet pepper plant’s fruit, leaves, stalks and main stems. As a result, the robot can harvest sweet peppers without damaging the fruit, leaves, stalks or stems.
Source and photo: www.sweeper-robot.eu. Video: Wageningen UR greenhouse horticulture.
In Next Generation Growing (NGG) we’re always talking about balances: water balance, fruit balance, energy balance, etc etc. And in sweet pepper production we’re constantly monitoring light input with the aim of keeping the plants in balance. Wouldn’t it be great if we could shine the lights on them for a week every now and again. Just to keep setting going a bit longer or to get your peppers to market a bit earlier than your competitors. But when we do a cost/benefit analysis, lighting seems to lose out.
When it comes to selling our produce, we always aim for consistency for our customers. After all, we want to be able to supply them with the same number of trailers of sweet peppers of uniform quality every day so they can keep their supermarket shelves full. Wouldn’t it be great to get slightly more fruit weight sometimes. To fill up those packs properly, or to be able to pick those last few fruits, with the help of a little light. Fruiting vegetables are expensive in winter but you can’t install lights just for that.
In winter we’re also looking for ways to make the best use of our staff. The reality is that at the moment we really have to motivate our casual staff to come back again after the winter dip. Every year it’s a challenge to get them back in the greenhouse refreshed and at the right time and to get them to work with the same mindset as they had when we finished three months earlier. But you can’t switch your lights on just for that either.
As members of the circular heat networks in our growing area, we all want as much heat as we can get in the dark months. Everyone has plenty of heat in summer but not enough in winter. Waste processing plants aren’t about to start saving up their waste so that they can burn it in the winter and supply the heat to growers. But anyhow, the situation where you have the same demand for heat all year round helped by extra light from above (lighting) in the dark periods is still a long way off.
So why don’t we take another look at the options and switch to lighting? Not just for sweet peppers but for other fruiting vegetables and ornamentals as well.
Maikel van den Berg
Sweet pepper grower in The Netherlands
As every grower knows, thrips are a huge problem in ornamentals grown under glass. The usual suspect is the Californian thrips, a species with a strong preference for flowers. But in recent years another polyphagous thrips has been increasingly raising its head: Echinothrips americanus. Without timely intervention, this typical leaf-dwelling thrips can cause considerable damage to ornamentals such as gerbera and rose. Scientists have been taking another close look at how to control this thrips with a range of species of predatory mites and bugs.
In this study, striking differences were found between the four species of predatory mite used and the controlling effect was boosted in some cases by providing pollen. Predatory bugs in the Miridae family have been found to be very effective predators of Echinothrips but the options for using them very much depend on the type of crop.
Unlike the Californian thrips, which is a typical flower thrips, Echinothrips americanus prefers leaves. It is easily identified by its black body with two distinct white spots on the wings. But because it often hides away low down in the crop, its presence in the greenhouse can be something of a surprise. Although the species has been present in the Dutch greenhouse horticulture sector for about 20 years (it was imported from North America, as its name suggests), we still know very little about this creature.
In recent years there has been a clear increase in this species at nurseries switching to integrated pest control. The reduction in the use of broad-spectrum insecticides has given this thrips more chance to establish itself in crops. To avoid disturbing biological control of other pests, it makes sense to also tackle this insect with natural predators. Predatory mites and bugs are good candidates for this.
Control with predatory mites
In the lab, the researchers investigated how susceptible the various stages are to predatory mites and how many individuals of each stage are eaten per day. This was tested with the predatory mites Amblyseius swirskii, Amblydromalus limonicus, Euseius ovalis and Euseius gallicus. The latter two Euseius species establish readily in rose and are therefore interesting candidates for this crop.
Striking differences were found between the species. A. limonicus ate the most Echinothrips larvae, followed by E. ovalis and A. swirskii (see figure). A. limonicus also laid the largest number of eggs out of these mites. Surprisingly, the thrips were more or less left untouched by E. gallicus. The exact reason for this is unclear.
Interestingly, the pupae were also susceptible to the mites. This immobile stage, which is also found on the leaf, cannot defend itself and is therefore suitable prey.
With the exception of E. gallicus, all species of predatory mite ate the pupal stage. However, as the pupae are much larger than the larvae, the number of individuals eaten per day was a lot lower than in the larval stage. None of the predatory mites ate adult Echinothrips. In addition to the number of thrips being eaten by each individual predator, an important indicator in pest control in a crop is how well a predatory mite establishes itself and in what densities: after all, a high density can easily make up for lower predation rates per individual.
Results in the crop
The predatory mites A. swirskii and A. limonicus were compared in a greenhouse gerbera crop, with the results matching those in the lab quite closely. The thrips were controlled better with A. limonicus than with A. swirskii. This difference has also been observed in other studies with roses and sweet peppers.
Curiously, though, Echinothrips often doesn’t disappear completely: it is somehow able to survive the pressure from the predatory mite. So in a subsequent study the scientists looked into whether control could be improved by offering pollen as an alternative food source. Pollen can massively boost the density of predatory mites, which could lead to better pest control. The downside is that the Californian thrips also feeds on pollen, potentially causing scenarios that are detrimental to thrips control.
Effects of pollen
An important question, therefore, is whether this also affects Echinothrips. With bulrush pollen, the answer was a resounding no. Unlike with the Californian thrips, there was no impact on development time, egg laying or population development whatsoever. This is helpful in that it means supplementary food can be provided for predatory mites selectively, as long as there are no Californian thrips present.
The effects of pollen on thrips control were tested on non-flowering pepper plants using the predatory mites A. swirskii, E. gallicus and E. ovalis. Providing pollen increased the densities of all these mites. Control of Echinothrips using this method was significantly better with A. swirskii but despite the higher densities there was no control effect with E. gallicus. E. ovalis responded extremely well to pollen but the control effect was just as good on plants without pollen.
It has been known for a long time that the bug Orius majusculus is an effective predator of Echinothrips on sweet peppers. Orius is used to control thrips in this crop with great success. But the bug doesn’t establish in many ornamental crops. In recent years, scientists have been looking at the effect of omnivorous predatory bugs in the Miridae family on gerbera. In addition to Macrolophus pygmaeus, various Dicyphus species such as D. maroccanus, D. tamaninii and D. errans have also been trialled. All these species controlled thrips extremely well. Plants were made completely clean and remained so.
The bugs seem to be excellent candidates for preventive use against a range of pests and they can maintain themselves well because they eat a variety of prey and plant sap. This can also be a disadvantage, however, because feeding on plants can cause flower damage. Further research will be carried out in the future to see whether and when that happens and whether it can be avoided. The use of these bugs in gerbera could be a breakthrough in biological control of Echinothrips as well as other pests. Future research in other crops, such as roses and pot plants, is planned to ascertain whether the use of predators with banker plants can be supported.
Echinothrips is appearing more and more frequently in ornamentals grown under glass. In trials with a number of species of predatory mite, A. limonicus provided the best control while E. gallicus had little if any effect. Control with A. swirskii was improved by offering pollen. Besides predatory mites, predatory bugs of the Miridae family were found to be excellent predators but further research is needed to prevent potential flower damage and to improve establishment in different crops.
Text and image: Gerben Messelink, Somayyeh Gasemzadeh and Ada Leman (Wageningen University & Research).